Friday, August 17, 2012

Installation Review: Outside In / Inside Out: The Inner Life of Jack (by Ellen Sollod and Johanna Melamed); Jack Straw Studios, Seattle

Upon entering the gallery room, I became aware of a dim image on the wall. Though I had read what the image was, I could not make it out for a minute or two as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I felt around, looking for a chair or bench to sit on; finding none, I was content to stand for a few minutes.

The image came into focus. Or rather, almost into focus; it remained fuzzy, soft-edged, dreamlike. It was, of course, of the street in front of the Jack Straw gallery, projected upside down and backwards onto the wall by the camera obscura – merely a hole in the wall with a lens. Such “darkened chambers” (translation of “camera obscura”) were mentioned in both Chinese and Greek sources from the 4th and 5th centuries B.C. (without the lens), so they probably existed prior to that. They are the ancestor of all of our cameras today. Usually they have been used for amusement, as an aid to drawing, or to prove scientific ideas such as that light travels in a straight line. Here, together with a stream-of-consciousness soundtrack, one was used to create a surreal, meditative atmosphere.

When my eyes had fully adjusted, I could see a bench, which I sat down on. I could also see that the image was not only on the wall. That delicate pattern of dark and light trapezoids on the floor was the image of the windows of a building across the street. The sparkle of diamonds arrayed across the ceiling was refractions from a light bouncing off of a mirror from a parked car next door. The angular blurred lines across the far wall were continuations of the same image, but distorted due to the angle of the lens. Every so often, a car or pedestrian passed by; seen upside down and unrelated to the soundtrack that was going on, they created a surreal but not disquieting atmosphere.

According to the promo material, “’Outside In/ Inside Out: the inner life of Jack’ is an installation that employs a camera obscura and sound score to create an immersive experience, evoking the essence of Jack Straw Productions on its 50th anniversary.” This experience is of course created partially with the moving images, but also with the score. This is a varied soundscape derived from a “compilation of found sounds, field recordings made in situ, archival material from KRAB (the 1970’s and 1980’s experimental radio station run by the same organization), and contemporary recordings made at Jack Straw.” Clips ranged from the profound to the silly and included discussions on blindness, trees, how to survive an atomic bomb, and whether bagels were defiled by peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. There were also bits of music, including some jazz and (contemporary) classical, an experimental harpsichord piece under a discussion (“I’m not photographing, I’m recording – is that the same thing?”) and three different African selections: one “pop”, one somewhere between “pop” and traditional, and one balafon solo that was traditional at least in style, but emerged from an austere free-jazz scatter of clarinets. The totality of the experience was what counted here; the sounds and images (and sound filtering in from outside the gallery) were all dreamlike and disconnected, but somehow at the same time connected and profoundly nostalgic. I can’t really explain how. It was, however, a fitting tribute to 50 years of an organization for experimental music and media.

One topic is left to discuss. I thought, after I left, that the pedestrians and people in the cars I had seen go by (upside down) probably were not aware of the dreamworld unfolding only a few feet from them. This discussion could go several ways; we are all, of course, not usually aware of what is happening behind any given wall at any particular time. But also, it could be a metaphor for experimental music and media itself: such art is a complex, beautiful, and infinitely interesting world, yet (due to “blockage” by the mass media) a lot of people are simply unaware of it. Jack Straw Studios is doing what they can to rectify that situation.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Concert Review: Rock at the Taste of Edmonds (Borrowed Time and Heart by Heart), Edmonds, WA, 8/12/2012

Those who think I’ve sold my soul here needn’t worry; I’ll get back to the avant-garde in my next post. I went to this food festival but got in on some of the music; here are my thoughts.

“The Grand Illusion” by Styx was one of the special favorites of my own little four-member music-nerd club when I was in high school (along with albums by Kansas and Rush, Roger Woodward plays Takemitsu, and the Shostakovich 8th – though I had initially told the others that the latter was the soundtrack to a Russian sci-fi movie because there was an idea going around that classical music was the same as muzak…) Anyway, with thirty-plus years of hindsight, a lot of recordings by Styx sound dated and overproduced, too reliant on (rudimentary) synthesizers, and (let’s face it) a little silly. Or so I thought. Albums by Styx might sound this way now, but individual songs, when played enthusiastically by a capable band, can still sparkle. This band, called “Borrowed Time”, did a particularly good job of the vocal harmonies in “Renegade” and the instrumental licks in “Angry Young Man”. They also played several tunes from “Paradise Theater” (without the saxophones) and they generally rocked the stadium. They didn’t play either “Babe” or “Castle Walls”, but one can’t have everything. They ended with the epic “Come Sail Away”, adding a drum solo (under the regular power chords for the song) in place of the prosaic fade-out. I might add that they sounded as much like Styx as a band that isn’t Styx could.

Then came the Heart tribute band, called “Heart by Heart”. They started off well with “Cook with Fire” (it sounded exactly like Heart’s recording of the same) but then something happened. Early in the show, they got off-key in the first ten seconds of “Magic Man” and never recovered. In fact, they got worse. In “Love Alive”, a song that relies on intricate syncopations for its effect, the guitarists couldn’t get the rhythms right and the drummer kept missing counts. They also made some aesthetic choices that left me scratching my head – the addition of fuzz guitar to “Dog and Butterfly” was an absurdity akin to playing Coltrane on a harpsichord (wrong instrument, dudes!). And on and on. As they got worse, they also got louder; at some point it became obvious (to me at any rate) that they were cranking up the volume so the music would just turn into a wall of sound and we wouldn’t notice how badly they were playing. In the end I gave up and left early. I didn’t wait around to see if they were going to play “Barracuda” or “These Dreams”, and I’d realized by the time I left that any of Heart’s more artsy songs – such as “Sylvan Song / Dream of the Archer”, or that wonderfully Zeppelin-esque tone painting, “Mistral Wind” – were simply beyond them.

Of course, there’s the argument that since rock-and-roll is just for fun, we needn’t hold it to the same standards as other types of music. Ask a rock musician for a second opinion about that. (And, if the same argument were made in other fields, I can imagine someone saying, “Ice cream is just for fun, so it needn’t have any good ingredients…” You can see my point.) It is just for fun, mostly, but it’s a lot less fun if it’s done badly. …and the real kicker here was that some of the members of this band were the original members of Heart. What has happened…? In their defense, the vocalist did sound a lot like one of the original Wilson sisters, and this may have been a mostly unrehearsed band (they announced at the beginning that one of the guitarists was from another band that had just finished playing elsewhere in the festival). So, I suppose I could cut them some slack. At least some of the other people there seemed to be enjoying the music.

So that was that. The food was delicious (I had a salmon piroshky and a salmon salad, ended with a dessert oddity – a deep-fried Snickers bar – just as weird but not as tasty as I’d expected) but it was expensive, and the place was hot and dusty and the music was mediocre. I can’t say if I’ll be back next year.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Concert Review: Free Form Flute (Robert Dick, Clifford Dunn, John C. Savage, Paul Taub); Good Shepherd Center, 8/1/2012

I first encountered Robert Dick’s music on KRAB back in the 1980’s. I’m not a fl(a)utist myself, so I didn’t know exactly which of his extended techniques were “new” (I had heard some of them in Jethro Tull) but I recognized a freshness in this music, as there often is when the music is by an artist who is interested in the sound of the sound itself.

Fast forward to 2012. I happened to meet R. D. before the concert, and asked what music he was going to play, “It’s going to be spontaneous – but there will be quartets, trios, duets, and solos.”

(Photo by Brenden Z. Smith)

The first (and longest) piece was a quartet improvisation, with R. D. and Clifford Dunn, John C. Savage, and Paul Taub (all well-known Seattle “new music” flutists). There is a surprising variety of music that can be produced by the “simple” ensemble of four flutes, particularly when the alto and bass flute are added. I kept a running commentary on the music:

Shakuhachi sounds, then with staccato interruptions. Quasi-serialist (all standard flutes, with C. D. on alto). 2 players stop playing and move to the side, letting C. D. and J. C. S. play microtonal drones. R. D. picks up bass flute (from table in the middle of the stage) and plays a solo. Percussive tapping sounds, beautiful ripples of notes, then overtones. Quiet, tranquil. Crescendo, others join in, becomes strident, avian. Messiaen. Amazing how loud this can be – produces feedback-like humming in my ears. Dies out in a standard “free jazz” gesture, but leaves harmonics with a hip-hop bass quietly filtering in from the open window (did the flutists notice this while they were playing loudly and decided to give it a place in their improvisation?) Return of the shakuhachi sounds. R. D. picks up piccolo, solos (a sopranino shakuhachi?) P. T. begins actual whistling while playing the bass. Humorous tapping (swing rhythm) from R. D.; random flutterings from the others. Stop; immediately piccolo solo begins coda. Quasi-serialism again, then “talking” back and forth from all players. End.

A second, slightly shorter improvisation concluded the first half of the concert. However, the master strokes came during the second half. Here, R. D. began with some strangely frightening, bubbling noises which gave way to a short piece for flutes and voices – at one point R. D. actually vocally instructed the others (while still playing his flute) to join in. Afterwards they added all types of vocal “tics” to their fluting. The results were both hilarious and vaguely disturbing. And then followed The Solos.

In contrast to the two long pieces of the first half, this second “jam” consisted of a suite of short pieces. Four of these were solos, one for each player. Ranging from gentle pentatonic melodies in the style of Debussy (or Lou Harrison, or even Paul Horn) to microtonal drones with multiphonics, to syncopated jazz riffs, these solos emphasized the variety that is possible on this instrument. As the promo from Wayward Music Seattle proclaimed: ignore everything you think you know about a solo flute recital. This was anything but a solo flute recital.

The concert concluded with something that I would have though impossible. The audience demanded an encore, so R. D. announced “…and now for the ugly ending…” and they all began at exactly the same time in exactly the same key. How does a group improvise in unison?! (Actually it was a continuation of the piece they’d just finished, but the sudden unity was unexpected and beautiful anyway.) During this final improvisation, two of the players wandered to the sides of the audience, resulting in an organic type of surround sound. Despite what R. D. had said, there was nothing “ugly” about this ending.